Elmer Bernstein

The Great Escape Theme

Great Escape Piano Music Part I Part II

Elmer Bernstein (1992- 2004)

It should be noted, before someone emails me about it, that Bernstein is not a Brit but he has been credited as writing several scores for British films and if not just for the theme to The Great Escape, he makes this section on British Composers.

While in his teens, his piano teacher realized he had a creative gift and later was introduced to the legendary Aaron Copland. Copland being impressed, sent him at the age of 13 to see a gifted pupil, Israel Sitkowitz. Bernstein later studied piano with Henrietta Michelson at the Juilliard School of Music. Later he studied composition with Stefan Wolpe and Roger Sessions. In 1943 he went into the army, where he was introduced to the art of scoring incidental music. Bernstein was assigned to writing orchestral arrangements of folk songs for Major Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band. Later he scored a dramatic radio program for the Armed Forces Radio


He composed music for more than eighty Armed Forces Radio programs which led to a 1949 dramatic scoring stint at NBC, which in turn opened Hollywood's heavy doors to a career in film composing. His first scores were mostly minor entries (Saturday's Hero '51; Sudden Fear'52; Boots Malone '52) with the 'highlight' being 1953's Robot Monster. But in 1955 things changed: an Oscar nomination for the Otto Preminger classic, The Man with the Golden Arm and The View from Pompey's Head which alerted Cecil B. DeMille to the versatility of Elmer Bernstein. Could he handle a major epic? A nearly four-hour spectacle? The answer came later when DeMille told Bernstein: "this music will surely survive me...and possibly even yourself". The film was The Ten Commandments and Bernstein would re-record it some 15 years later with success.

The years that followed included a varied menagerie of films that would bring out the creative genius of Elmer Bernstein, who showed a genuine flare for scoring westerns, six of them for John Wayne over a 15-year period. It is difficult to mention so-called 'highlights' of Mr. Bernstein's career, because some of his finest works were not only in the memorable class which would have to include: The Magnificent Seven, True Grit, The Great Escape, Hud, Birdman of Alcatraz, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shootist, Stripes, Trading Places, My Left Foot and The Age of Innocence. His last film theme was 'Far from Heaven' (2002) - he died at his home in Californa in 2004.

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